Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Is the Law Professor Gravy Train Over?

New York Times (Jan. 18, 2009): The Last Professor, by Stanley Fish:

I have argued that higher education, properly understood, is distinguished by the absence of a direct and designed relationship between its activities and measurable effects in the world. ...

It may be fun to argue its merits (as I have done), but that argument may be merely academic – in the pejorative sense of the word – if it has no support in the real world from which it rhetorically distances itself. In today’s climate, does it have a chance?

In a new book, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue ... asks that question and answers “No.” ... Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. ...

One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it. The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals. ... Universities under increasing financial pressure, he explains, do not “hire the most experienced teachers, but rather the cheapest teachers.” Tenured and tenure-track teachers now make up only 35% of the pedagogical workforce and “this number is steadily falling.” ...

People sometimes believe that they were born too late or too early. After reading Donoghue’s book, I feel that I have timed it just right, for it seems that I have had a career that would not have been available to me had I entered the world 50 years later. Just lucky, I guess.

Forbes (Jan. 14, 2009): The Great College Hoax, by Kathy Kristof:

Accepted into the California Western School of Law, a private San Diego institution, [Joel] Kellum couldn't swing the $36,000 in annual tuition with financial aid and part-time work. So he did what friends and professors said was the smart move and took out $60,000 in student loans.

Kellum's law school sweetheart, Jennifer Coultas, did much the same. By the time they graduated in 1995, the couple was $194,000 in debt. They eventually married and each landed a six-figure job. Yet even with Kellum moonlighting, they had to scrounge to come up with $145,000 in loan payments. With interest accruing at up to 12% a year, that whittled away only $21,000 in principal. Their remaining bill: $173,000 and counting.

Kellum and Coultas divorced last year. Each cites their struggle with law school debt as a major source of stress on their marriage. "Two people with this much debt just shouldn't be together," Kellum says.

The two disillusioned attorneys were victims of an unfolding education hoax on the middle class that's just as insidious, and nearly as sweeping, as the housing debacle. The ingredients are strikingly similar, too: Misguided easy-money policies that are encouraging the masses to go into debt; a self-serving establishment trading in half-truths that exaggerate the value of its product; plus a Wall Street money machine dabbling in outright fraud as it foists unaffordable debt on the most vulnerable marks. ...

Not only are college numbers spun. Some are patently spurious, says Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA. Law schools lure in minority students to improve diversity rankings without disclosing that less than half of African-Americans who enter these programs ever pass the bar. Schools goose employment statistics by temporarily hiring new grads and spotlighting kids who land top-paying jobs, while glossing over far-lower average incomes. The one certainty: The average law grad owes $100,000 in student debt. "There are a lot of aspects of selling education that are tinged with consumer fraud," Sander says. "There is a definite conspiracy to lead students down a primrose path."

AALS Committee on Research Program (Jan. 9, 2009), Citations, SSRN Downloads, U.S. News, Carnegie, Bar Passage, Careers: Competing Methods of Assessing Law Schools (podcast):

  • Bill Henderson (Indiana):
    • 25:30: "Employment outcomes do not turn on your U.S. News ranking."
      25:55: At 50 law schools, 20% of the students are either unemployed, flunked out, or are unknown, yet the ABA and LSAC disavow the use of data to rank law schools.
  • Richard Matasar (Dean, New York Law School):
    • 1:16:50: "We are an input-focused business, and outputs are what the students are paying for."
      1:20:40: "Law school needs to be about what people need -- not what we're good at. ... Most of us are social misfits, and we're the ones who've been designated to teach the students how to work interpersonal skills."
      1:21:20: "We should be ashamed of ourselves. We own our students' outcomes. We took them. We took their money. We live on their money to pay to come to San Diego. And if they don't have a good outcome in life, we're exploiting them. It's our responsibility to own the outcomes of our institutions. If they're not doing well ... it's gotta be fixed. Or we should shut the damn place down. And that's a moral responsibility that we bear in the academy. It's a leadership responsibility that each of us has. And damn the U.S. News if it affects our rankings. The kids are not gonna show up. Do you know that LSAT registrations are flat to down this year. That students' applications to law school are flat to down in a substantial number of law schools. That's never happened in a downturn in the economy before. They're catching on. Maybe this thing they are doing is not so valuable. Maybe the chance at being in the top 10% is not a good enough lottery shot in order to effectively spend $120,000 and see it blow up at the end of three years of law school.
  • Jason Solomon (Georgia):
    • 1:29:20: "We're mad as heck and we can't take it anymore. ... To the panelists and others in the room: what are we going to do? Are people from AALS leadership here?"
  • Bryant G. Garth (Dean, Southwestern):
    • 1:32:00: "This group has stonewalled completely and killed any kind of real consumer information for 20 or 30 years, and that's what made U.S. News own this particular enterprise. And it's something that maybe those that stonewalled for some long might have to take some initiative and responsibility in remedying the situation we find ourselves in."

(Cross-posted on TaxProf Blog.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

God forbid they live on only $100,000 a year for a few years and pay off their loans...

1/20/2009 3:07 PM  
Anonymous Andrew said...

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1/21/2009 2:23 AM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...


Your spambot is off-message here, buddy.

Professor Caron,

It would be interesting to hear more about the substance and mood of the AALS discussion. Frankly, my takeaway from the situation is that more information may be needed, but also that the efficient and appropriate solution would be for a number of the Tier 3 and Tier 4 schools to be shuttered or made to post "Beware" signs. Without having yet listened to the proceedings, I tend to doubt that's what being said.

As to the rest, well . . . I take it that there are danger signs everywhere, and that the point is to be self-critical, but it seems a little self-centered to react to an article about the crisis in liberal arts education, and the problems confronting young lawyers, by putting it into terms of a problem confronting law professors and their gravy train.

1/24/2009 3:55 PM  

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